My Little Secret

Bodhi leashless park smallThose of you who have been reading my blog for some time now know that I share quite a bit here about my life with Sierra and Bodhi. But for the last few weeks I’ve been keeping a secret from you all…it’s something I’ve been doing in the early morning hours, and it involves one of the dogs. Let me explain.

You all know how I feel about people who are irresponsible with their dogs, whether that means not cleaning up after them, neglecting them, or letting them off leash in public places. But for the last few weeks, I’ve been doing the latter. No, I haven’t become one of those “off-leash regulars” I see all too often, but I have, in a very limited way, been allowing Bodhi to be off-leash.

It’s been over two years since we adopted him from the shelter, and Bodhi has come a long way with many issues, including leashwork. At the beginning it was apparent that walking on a leash was a concept he’d never encountered, and for the longest time he couldn’t understand why I’d want to stop him from lunging and barking at other dogs. But we kept at it, and he can now walk nicely next to me and even stop and sit in the vicinity of other dogs—including Darth Vader, as I’ve nicknamed the poor, sweet black Lab who just plain sets Bodhi off for reasons known only to him. Anyway, having a malamute mix who is good on leash the vast majority of the time is a beautiful thing. But I also believe that dogs should be trained to off-leash reliability; you never know when you’ll need it.

We started months ago with a long-line, practicing recalls, attention, and “with me” (my cue for walking by my side). Fortunately, Bodhi is more of a stick-with-you type than a take-off-when-the-leash-comes-off kinda dog…but still, I don’t take unnecessary chances. We frequent the park at the crack of dawn when there are very few people around, and because of the park’s large, spread out areas, it’s easy to see people approaching from a great distance. So a few weeks ago, in one of those safe areas, far from the parking lots and the more populated paths, I undid Bodhi’s leash. His first reaction was priceless…it was as though he was trying to figure out how it was possible that he was suddenly unencumbered, moving at the pace he’d always wished he could, if he didn’t have that sleepy redhead attached. He pranced happily forward a few feet—and then turned to look at me. Yes! Beautiful! I smiled and he came running back, and promptly received a hot dog with a side order of enthusiastic praise.

Our walk quickly fell into a pattern of Bodhi walking a few feet ahead, peeing on something or just exploring, and then running back to me. Each time, he got a reward. And when we re-entered the part of the park where people normally walk or jog, the leash went back on. (Oh, and by the way, once the leash was on and we passed a familiar woman, she said, “Look at the adoring way he watches you.” Yep, he was right next to me, gazing into my face, all right…wishing for a hot dog.) Since that first walk, whenever we do the off-leash thing, the joy on Bodhi’s face is unmistakeable. But something else has happened that I hadn’t anticipated: not only did those experiences please me from a training point of view, but they’ve actually made me feel closer to Bodhi. There’s just something about an animal who has the freedom to choose where to be, and chooses to be with you. I love that he doesn’t just think, Woohoo, free at last! and disappear into the nearest hillside.

Now, I would never do this with Sierra. As you may have heard, the girl has a prey drive from hell. She’s a little wild thing, and although we’ve done plenty of training and she’s got a pretty spectacular recall, I don’t have such an inflated opinion of myself that I believe I can compete with a squirrel. Not yet, anyway. We have, however, been practicing with the long line.

I’m not suggesting that anyone allow their dogs to go leashless, or to take chances they shouldn’t. But for us, the freedom those short off-leash jaunts have given Bodhi, and the joy they’ve given us both, have been great rewards in and of themselves.

14 Responses to My Little Secret

  1. Ashley says:

    Congrats !!! I feel that is the exact compliment this warrents ! Obviously you’ve put in the work needed to feel like you can trust him off leash even if only for a short while. Clients are always asking when they can do this, my response is always when it feels right. Obviously this requires lots of practice, knowing your dog, and setting them up for success (large empty field instead of assuming your dog will come back say at a county fair !)
    Definitely nice to hear that you’re building your relationship with him! I know you had posted a while back about how you wish you could connect with every dog instantly !

  2. fearfuldogs says:

    Yahooo! The first time I unclipped Sunny from the longline I’d had him on for months he raced off after the other dogs and I thought “He’s gone, how stupid Debbie!” Then I saw him running back to me at full tilt and he leapt up onto me, launched himself off and returned to exploring with the other dogs. At this time he was still not able to approach me on cue, and he never jumped on me like that again. Having grown up in a pen that may have been his first opportunity to run like that. I don’t know what joy feels like for a dog, but I think I know what it looks like.

  3. Tobias Sz says:

    Woohoo! I can relate to your success and know the feeling really well. With my first dog (a siberian husky) I wanted for him to be able to walk off-leash although there was prey drive (not so much as to make this impossible though).
    I trained a lot with him and as soon as I had enough confidence in my recall we went to a nearby canal to try walking without a leash. I chose the canal because there’s water on one side (he’s one of those huskies that don’t swim 🙂 ) and a planted mound on the other side that blocked his view. If he wanted to he could of course go through the trees on that mound, but we always walked on the path besides the canal, so he never tried. The canal was fairly straight so I could see a long way in front of us and behind.
    It was perfect and although we had some minor mishaps I never regretted my decision to try it. You are right that you have to take care and train really well (starting with a long leash and so on).

    Another thing I noticed: My recalls and other commands took on a whole new level. It’s one thing to call your dog when you subconciously know nothing really bad can happen if he doesn’t stop because you can control him with the leash and another thing entirely when you realise that he absolutely has to stop because otherwise he’ll chase that rabbit you missed god knows where.
    I don’t mean I shouted them louder or anything, they just became more … “forceful” for lack of a better word.

    If done properly and with care letting your dog of the leash can be rewarding for both the dog and yourself and really push you in your training.

  4. lexy3587 says:

    Congrats – sounds like you guys are bonding, and like he’s doing really well with his newfound freedom 🙂 I am one of the regulars with off-leash time, but only in areas that I won’t interfere with other peoples’ enjoyment of the park in. The joy a dog can find from running circles in the bushes next to you is a wonder to see. And your’e so right – the fact that they choose to keep with you when they don’t have to is so nice 🙂

  5. Rich Holland says:

    I agree that doing some off-leash training is a good idea and gives you a bit of safety training should that situation ever occur. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many people think that because their dog does well off-leash that they can do the same when other people and other dogs are around. I wish everyone had the sense that you do to take precautions when you do such training. Living in West Hollywood, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a dog run up to and start a fight with my dog as the owner runs after the dog screaming for him/her to come back. The response is always the same. “I’m so sorry. My dog has never done that before.” Well guess what…he just did. My wish for every dog owner would be to learn from people like you (Nicole) how to properly engage in activities with their beloved pooch.

  6. Erica says:

    I have a husky.terrier mix and I know the joy you are talking about in Bohdi’s face. I often walk super late at night during the summer (well actually I guess super early morning (like 1 a.m.) and I would let Bello run at the nearby school. He would fly around running like crazy and I would almost want to cry from how happy he was.

  7. Kevin says:

    It’s interesting the difference between the UK and the USA with regards to leash attitudes. Letting your dog off leash is the norm and is part of training at the puppy stage in the UK. I have two weimariners and the thought of them not being off leash around the woods to burn of their excess energy for at least 4-5 hours each week would be unthinkable. I must admit a lot of pleasure I have with dogs is walking with dogs who are free. Most people walk their dogs of lead in the countryside, beaches and in hill country. However there is gradually more leash laws coming in over time. If it was to get so that the dogs didn’t get off lead time, I think I would stop having dogs as their quality of life would be so reduced

  8. Wonderful, Nicole. My loudmouth Australian Shepherd, Blue Lu Barker, was glued to me for about the first 3 months after I rescued her. I did lots of test-drives with her off leash in remote areas, on paths, in front of our house etc. Perfect. Then one day she made a hard right in the middle of chasing a frisbee with her bff and raced across 2 lanes of traffic to get in the face of a doberman who had the temerity to bark at her from behind a fence. We dodged a bullet (no oncoming cars) that day, but since then she is on leash except for burst from the house to the truck.

    I miss having a dog I feel I can trust off-leash. My late-lamented lab, Molly, would come to an instant sit even if the tennis ball truck had overturned. When Lu & I were in the mountains of N. Carolina this summer we did epic off-leash hikes & her recall was flawless, even when tracking whatever it was off trail. This post reminds me that I needn’t just accept that Lu can’t become reliable off-leash if I just do the work. Thanks.

  9. Matthew says:

    Congratulations on Bodhi making off leash progress. I so can identify. I never thought I would ever be able to let my dog off leash. but today I can. often when on leash he will push the boundaries of “loose lead” walking. Off leash, he often sticks like glue to me.

    One thing I am particularly proud of is him returning to me so I can reattach his leash and this “paycheck” is continuing the walk/adventure.

  10. barb daniel says:

    I have just signed up to follow this blog. I am working with someone who has a wolf dog. This is the highest content wolf dog I have ever encountered and I am brainstorming ways to prevent this dog from jumping her fence. She is at this point doing this regularly. It is just a matter of time before she is killed or lost for good. The woman has built up the fence to 8 feet though it is not strongly built and the dog continues to find ways out. I was thinking of adding a hot wire and was wondering what advice experienced people might be able to give regarding this.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Barb,
      This blog is not a place to ask people for advice on wolfdogs, but you can find detailed instructions (including tips on how to set up hotwire at the top of a fence) on how to escape-proof yards and build enclosures for wolfdogs in my book “Living with Wolfdogs”. If you are in a rush you can download the ebook. Both hard copy and ebook version are available at
      I hope you are able to help her do something quickly.
      Take care,

  11. Μάρσα says:

    I love dog lovers. People who live with their dogs and treat them with respect make me happy. I’ m Marsa a Posavac dog hound and I have my own blog, too. I’ ll be glad if you want to become my friend.
    I’ m wagging my tail with joy to you…

  12. dia says:

    I’m a bit late responding, but I just wanted to say that I have noticed the same thing about off-leash with my dog – having him offleash, checking things out, but still responsive to me, seems to create a bond. I feel like there’s mutual trust developed, especially since my dog is quite fearful (wild-canid kind of wary-fearful) and for him, trust is not given easily. Anyway, nice story – thanks for sharing.

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